Styles & Forms | Alternative/Indie Rock

Rather a ‘catch-all’ category that includes many musically diverse bands from the 1980s and 1990s, ‘alternative’ is generally an American term referring to any remotely leftfield and non-mainstream band, whereas ‘indie rock’ originally refers generally to the UK bands recording for smaller, independent labels, again usually meaning non-mainstream bands.

Alternative encompasses many sub-styles. To complicate matters, many bands can be said to have started their career as ‘alternative’, simply because they are little known and therefore non-mainstream, but as they become more successful and consequently incorporated into the mainstream, they are no longer ‘alternative’ even though they may have changed their music little. Mainstream bands such as Radiohead, U2 and INXS have all at some point in their careers been described as ‘alternative’. Confused? You should be! Just don’t take this ‘alternative’ category too rigidly!

Stateside, the first two alternative bands of lasting significance were R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü, both of whom emerged in the mid-1980s. R.E.M. started off as a guitar pop band, inspiring many bands in their wake, and went on to become one of the biggest and most successful bands on the planet; Hüsker Dü’s speed pop was similarly influential although they never broke into the mainstream.

In the 1990s, the most influential alternative band was Nirvana, who emerged from the so-called Seattle-based grunge scene, with Nevermind (1991), breaking down the barrier between hard rock and alternative. Influenced by The Pixies’ use of dynamics (that is, quiet passages followed by loud passages as heard on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) as on ‘Surfer Rosa’ (1988), Nirvana were described as ‘the Guns N’ Roses it’s OK to like’ – melodic hard rock without the macho and misogynistic trappings that traditionally accompany many hard rock bands.

The alternative scene is so broad that it encompasses experimental bands such as The Butthole Surfers from Austin, Texas, and Sonic Youth, who emerged from the New York Noise scene. At the other end of the spectrum, it includes bands with traditional rock influences such as Jane’s Addiction with their Led Zeppelin (heard on Nothing’s Shocking (1988)) and The Smashing Pumpkins, led by alternative guitar hero Billy Corgan, who ‘widdles’ with the best of them on 1993’s Siamese Dream. Nine Inch Nails took traditionally conservative heavy metal into new areas with drum machines in industrial metal and Danzig took metal into new musical territories with Danzig III: How The Gods Kill (1992).

Lollapalooza Festival

Perry Farrell, the Jane’s Addiction singer, packaged the alternative scene into the Lollapalooza tour in the 1990s, a travelling musical circus showcasing many of the alternative bands but also celebrating alternative counter-culture 1990s-style with tattooing and piercing stands. Controversy was caused in 1996 when the festival was headlined by Metallica, again illustrating the broadness of the ‘alternative’ category. Metallica certainly started out as a broadly alternative band, albeit of the speed metal variety, but many alternative...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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